By Jana Soeldner Danger
Most crime fiction lovers know Agatha Christie was a terrific and prolific writer of mystery novels. Fewer know that she was an expert on poisons, dabbled in archaeology, married a much younger man, and was once investigated by the British intelligence agency.
Someone who does know all that is Alex Graeme, owner of Unique Devon Tours in England. He helps fans retrace Agatha’s steps at sites that were important in her life.
Written On A Bet
Agatha wrote her first novel on a bet: Her sister Madge wagered that she couldn’t write a decent detective story. And for a while, it seemed as if Madge might be right. Three publishers rejected The Mysterious Affair at Styles before one finally accepted it. Oh, but wait. We’re getting ahead of the story.
Graeme’s Agatha Christie tour begins when he picks up his guests at Orestone Manor. With its ocean views and 12 beautifully renovated bedrooms, each unique in size and decor, this classic Georgian manor-house-turned-hotel is a perfect place to begin channeling the spirit of the great mystery writer.
A Happy Childhood
Agatha’s penchant for diabolical plots and sinister characters was not the result of a troubled youth. “She had a very happy childhood,” Graeme told South Florida Opulence. “She was educated at home till age 11 and was reading by age 5.”
Although born in 1890 when women were not encouraged to be athletic, Agatha loved to swim in the sea. “In those days, most beaches were segregated by gender,” Graeme said. “Her favorite was Meadfoot, because it was the only mixed beach in the area, and she liked to swim alongside the gentlemen.”
A Romantic Encounter
“She enjoyed the company of men,” Graeme continues. At Ansteys Cove, a young Agatha went on a romantic midnight picnic with a man named Amyas Borton. “They sat on a rock and watched the moon rise,” Graeme said.
The romance didn’t last, and the two had only a couple of dates. “But when Agatha was in her 60s, she was contacted by Mr. Borton, who by then was a high-ranking officer in the British Air Force. He wanted to see her again.
“She said no; she wanted to retain the memory of their relationship as it was.”
A Wartime Bride
Agatha married her first husband, Archie Christie, on Christmas Eve in 1914, and they spent their honeymoon night at the Grand Hotel in Torquay. But two days later, Archie went back to fighting in World War I, while Agatha worked on the home front as a nurse and pharmacy dispenser.
Her volunteer occupation proved useful in more ways than one: “She became an expert in poisons,” Graeme said. “So it’s not surprising that a lot of her victims die by poison.”
Tour guests may shiver when they visit the Potent Plant Garden at Torre Abbey. “They grow many of the poisonous plants there that are found in her books,” Graeme says.
Best of Times; Worst of Times
Agatha finally found a publisher for her first novel in 1919. It was also the year that Archie got a peacetime job, and Agatha gave birth to their only child, Rosalind.
But if 1919 was a wonderful year, a dreadful one lay ahead. In 1926, Agatha’s mother died, Archie left her for another woman, and she struggled to complete another book. “It was a very difficult time for her,” Graeme said. “After that, she disappeared in a way that was like the plot of one of her novels.”
One winter night, Agatha simply vanished. Her abandoned car was found several miles away. “People worried she might have taken her own life,” Graeme said. After 11 days, she was recognized by people in Harrogate. “She was diagnosed with amnesia,” Graeme said.
After Archie and Agatha divorced, she traveled to Baghdad and visited an archaeological site. There she met Max Mallowan, an assistant archaeologist 14 years her junior, and they married in 1930. “He brought her a lot of happiness,” Graeme noted.
Real-Life Spy Thriller
It was during World War II that Agatha became embroiled in her own real-life spy thriller. MI5, the British intelligence agency, believed she had given away one of the country’s major wartime secrets in her novel, N or M. The main character, Major Bletchley, seemed to reveal the existence of the British code-breaking center at Bletchley Park. And to make matters more suspicious, Agatha was a good friend of a leading code breaker there.
Agatha died peacefully in 1976 at age 85. Her books rank third in volumes sold, after the Bible and Shakespeare, and 3 million of them continue to sell annually Graeme says. “She was so important to the literary world. And I think I would have liked her as a person.”
For additional details about the Agatha Christie tour in England, go to www.uniquedevontours.com.
England’s Orestone Manor
Orestone Manor, a classic Georgian guesthouse nestled in the coastal village of Maidencombe, provides nostalgic hospitality ideal for guests of the Agatha Christie tour. It offers ocean views, beautiful gardens and 12 renovated bedrooms, each different in decor and character. Its award-winning restaurant serves local meats, fresh fish and vegetables grown in the hotel garden. The Manor is the former home of John Callcott Horsley, designer of the first-ever Christmas card. Today, the family owned hotel provides easy access to the English Riviera. Visit www.orestonemanor.com or call 01803 328-098.